Lab Design and Furnishings

Human-Centered Design for the Popmintchev LABS

Develop a design guide to address the needs of lab workers

Jen Leonard
Color-splashed images and a live TV presentation that illustrate the X-ray laser research at the Popmintchev LABS greet researchers and visitors as they enter. 

In preparation to lead the design and construction of Popmintchev LABS at the University of California, San Diego, Taylor Design performed a human-centered design analysis to better understand the needs and motivations of the scholars working in the lab. The result was a 29-page “Design Insights” guide. Divided into five key sections, the document considered the following themes.  

Timing and lab rhythms. “The heart of a laser system beats non-stop, but the energy of the lab fluctuates over the course of the day.” This section’s goal was to inform the design team on lighting and energy requirements, as well as how often and how many people would likely be in the space at any given time. In addition to some important design directives, such ensuring sufficient corridor space and movable furniture, it inspired a color-based organization system. 

Stages of clean and laser safety. “Setting up a laser lab, and especially a relatively more challenging X-ray laser lab, is a progression from unclean to clean.” By considering the step-by-step process that researchers and visitors go through on their way to the lasers, the analysis instructed the design team on how the flow would proceed from “unclean” at entry to “clean” at the state-of-the-art X-ray laser stations. Design outcomes in the “danger zone” included distinct protective equipment for workers and visitors (e.g., laundered vs. disposable cleanroom suits, color vs. brown-black goggles) that they don in the vestibule prior to entering the areas with very high-power lasers. 

Intuitive and flexible design. “There is no typical day in a laser lab. Efficiency and adaptability are imperative.” Time spent tinkering or searching for something is time away from research and discovery, so this section emphasized designing out superfluous steps. For example, because X-ray laser research and ultrafast imaging of nano-systems and bio-systems often involves perceiving things from “weird angles,” multiple large video screens can be seen from all angles throughout the lab. This reduces the necessity of researchers to waste time changing vantage points, and is essential for the paramount safety aspects of research that uses some of the most powerful lasers in a university setting.

UCSD Professor Tenio Popmintchev, founder and principal investigator for the Popmintchev LABS, stands in his newly commissioned X-ray laser laboratory during the first installations of some of the X-ray technology that he pioneered.

Social aspects of research. “The lab plays host to a wide range of visitors.” Even research involving vacuums is not done in a social vacuum, and visitors to the Popmintchev LABS are common. Taylor’s research recommended a meeting room outside the cleanroom, writable surfaces throughout the space, and “imagery that can instruct, delight and give a window into laser research.” As a result, striking representations of the lab’s colorful discoveries adorn display areas inside and outside the cleanroom. 

Laser personalities. “Every laser has a distinct personality with a corresponding set of needs.” The two primary laser and X-ray systems in the Popmintchev LABS differ in their roles and their requirements. This step revealed Popmintchev’s strong desire for various thermal, acoustical, and humidity isolations, as well as a single slab of concrete under the flooring. This is because even a minor shift in connected slabs is perceptible to the lasers and potentially ruinous to the X-ray research that can “see everything.”

While not all of the advanced design strategies were implemented, aspects of the document helped to guide the project team throughout the process and it served as the story to inspire the design.

Jen Leonard is design strategy director for Taylor Design, a strategy-based design firm with practices in architectural design, interior design, and design strategy. The firm has five offices throughout California.